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The American Musical Instrument Society


The Curt Sachs Award 2014

Margaret Downie Banks

Margaret Downie Banks
Margaret Downie Banks

The award was presented to Banks on May 31, 2014, at the society’s annual meeting in Huron, Ohio, "in recognition of her professionalism and leadership since 1979 in establishing the Shrine to Music Museum, now the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota; in improving the size and quality of its collections; and in defining the scope and content of its academic programs within the broader context of the University of South Dakota. The award is also presented in acknowledgement of the perseverance and exactitude she has exhibited as the author of scholarly works in the field of organology, particularly those relating to the firm of C. G. Conn.”

Following are Professor Banks's remarks to members of the Society:

I must say that I was stunned when I checked my email a couple of months ago and read Al Rice’s message informing me that I had been chosen to receive the Curt Sachs Award this year. I turned to my husband, Barry, and asked him to reread the email—had I read it correctly? As the news began to sink in, I started reflecting on the list of 31 illustrious scholars, collectors, and colleagues who have previously been awarded this singular honor—many of them numbering among my own mentors and role models. I am greatly honored and humbled to be numbered among these awardees and I offer my heartfelt thanks to the AMIS Board of Governors, the members of the Curt Sachs Committee, and to all my AMIS friends and colleagues for considering me to be worthy of this honor. I cannot forget to thank my parents, Edwin and Lydia Downie, and my husband, Barry, for the lifelong, unconditional support and encouragement they have provided to enable me to pursue my passions and to realize my dreams.

I can’t claim to have been part of AMIS from its beginnings in 1971, but I did become a member two years later, after being introduced to the society by my first role model—none other than AMIS’ own Cynthia Hoover. I travelled to Washington, DC, in 1973, hoping to land a fellowship at the Smithsonian to work on cataloging their bowed stringed instrument collection as a focus project for my master’s thesis at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I’ll admit that I was pretty naïve to think that I could have pulled that off back then—or could even do so today for that matter--but, as it turned out, there was no funding available for the following fiscal year. I left Washington disappointed—and totally unaware that my personal contact with Cynthia would eventually help set the course for the rest of my career.

Cynthia’s enthusiasm for AMIS was infectious, so I approached the Binghamton Graduate Student Council and was awarded funding to cover my airfare to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I attended my first AMIS meeting in 1974. There was no Gribbon Award program at that time and I clearly remember staying with a friend of a friend just to save money. I couldn’t afford to attend the AMIS banquet, but enjoyed the meeting nonetheless. Years later, I learned that it was at the Ann Arbor meeting that Cynthia Hoover pointed me out to another AMIS member in attendance---a young man who had just established a new musical instrument museum in Vermillion, SD.

When I began my doctoral studies in musicology at West Virginia University, I was unaware that Andre P. Larson—by then the founding director of the “Shrine to Music Museum”—was simultaneously defending his dissertation at WVU. The musicology faculty soon realized that yet another unorthodox musical instrument scholar had infiltrated their classic program of study. So Barton Hudson, one of my faculty mentors, invited me to accompany him to a keyboard symposium in Brockport, NY, where I was introduced to his friend and well-known keyboard scholar, Edwin Ripin. The three of us spent an animated evening together during which we discussed my research interests and the possibility of a career in museum work. Ripin advised me in no uncertain terms not to even consider going into that field and certainly not to pursue a career in museum work. After all, he noted, all the positions at the U.S. instrument collections were already filled—and mostly by young people—there was Laury Libin at the Met, for example, and Barbara Lambert at the MFA; Cynthia Hoover was at the Smithsonian, Richard Rephann at Yale, and Bill Malm was in control of the Stearns Collection—there simply were no other positions anywhere, he said. That’s one time in my life that I’m very glad I didn’t take someone else’s advice! My WVU dissertation advisor, Harry Elzinga, graciously encouraged me to pursue my interests in organology, which ultimately led to my study about the history and iconography of the rebec. By the way, it was also at WVU that I met AMIS’ own Bob Green—then a young doctoral student himself--who had accepted an emergency hire at WVU to fill in for one of my musicology professors who was tragically killed in a plane crash during my first semester.

While still a student at WVU, I presented my first research paper, about the modern Greek lyra, at the 1976 AMIS meeting held at the University of South Dakota. AMIS members Dick and Jeannine Abel, along with Peggy Baird, took me under their wings at that meeting and became lifelong friends. But it was as a result of discussions at the 1978 AMIS meeting at Yale University that my professional career at the Shrine to Music Museum finally took shape. That fall I joined the 3-member staff in Vermillion, despite warnings from some well-meaning, east-coast colleagues who cautioned me against moving out to what they perceived to still be the “wild west,” replete, they cautioned, with conestoga wagons, cowboys and Indians. Once again, I didn’t listen to the rhetoric of the alarmists, but rather set out for the adventure of a lifetime on the Great Plains.

One of my first tasks at the “Shrine,” as it was known back then was to manage the new AMIS membership office, for which I served as the Membership Registrar for the next 16 years. As a result of regularly attending the society’s annual meetings, I was introduced to many of my AMIS role models, colleagues, and friends—including Cecil Adkins, Tony Bingham, Ed Bowles, Lillian Caplin, Bob Eliason, Bill Hettrick, Ed Kottick, Laury Libin, Arnold Myers, Al Rice, Susan Thompson, Bill Waterhouse, Marianne Wurlitzer, and Phil Young, to mention just a few. I spent 17 years working with André P. Larson to write, publish, and distribute the AMIS Newsletter with the support of the museum and the University of South Dakota. I subsequently spent 8 years on the Board of Governors, 4 years as AMIS Vice President, 11 years as the Journal Business Manager, 4 years as the Website Manager, and 6 years on the Gribbon Scholarship Committee. Unbeknownst to most AMIS members, the museum’s very first computer was purchased specifically to handle the day-to-day business of the society using an early database program called DataStar. You have no idea what a luxury that was! It meant that I didn’t have to type envelopes, mailing labels and membership rosters by hand anymore on the museum’s IBM Selectric typewriter!

Certainly one of my most memorable collaborations with AMIS was the annual meeting that I organized in Elkhart, Indiana in 1994, to coincide with an exhibition I curated about the C. G. Conn company, called “Elkhart’s Brass Roots.” Conference attendees toured many of the town’s historic musical instrument factories, enjoyed a turn-of-the-century band concert on Island Park, and witnessed an animated talk about the history of drums presented by the legendary William F. Ludwig II. I even enticed C. G. Conn III to travel to Elkhart from California for only the second time in his life to receive the keys to the City from the Mayor. Behind the scenes, however, I found myself having to explain the good-natured debate about the origins of the Sousaphone that was simultaneously being stirred up by Pepper loyalist and AMIS member, Lloyd Farrar. Was the first Sousaphone designed in Elkhart by Conn’s grandfather or was it made in Philadelphia by J. W. Pepper? That debate, incidentally, has never been conclusively resolved—at least not to my satisfaction.

Preserving the history of the American musical instrument industry, as many of you know, is both my specialty and my passion. I am very proud of the museum’s Musical Instrument Manufacturers’ Archive and have worked diligently for several decades to help preserve what remains of the corporate and historical records of several influential American manufacturers including Conn, Holton, and Leblanc. The MIMA collection, as we call it in Vermillion, currently numbers in excess of 25,000 items drawn from more than 2,400 musical instrument manufacturers and dealers. It is a great resource for research and has provided the primary source material for several theses written in partial fulfillment of the museum’s master’s degree program with a concentration in the history of musical instruments. Sarah Deters’ thesis about the effects of W.W. II material restrictions on the production of musical instruments in America; Jayson Dobney’s study of American drum makers; and Clint Spell’s thesis about the H. N. White Company and its products, all utilized this unique and valuable resource.

Honestly, one of the aspects of my career of which I am the most proud to have contributed to in some small measure are the students with whom I’ve had the privilege to work at the National Music Museum. The MFA’s charismatic curator of musical instruments, Darcy Kuronen, was one of the first graduate students to sit through my history of musical instruments class, along with the late Joe Johnson, who went on to develop a dynamic collection for the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. AMIS’s own illustrious journal editor, Allison Alcorn, was another one of my early graduate students. Susana Caldeira and Jayson Dobney both secured prestigious positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after completing their master’s degrees at USD. Former student Rodger Kelly has recently returned to our field following an intervening career in library science, to assume the role of Collections Manager at the National Music Museum. And Michael Suing has finally seen the light and returned to Vermillion after six productive years at both the Met and the MFA.

Whatever I may have accomplished in my first 40 years with AMIS and 36 years at the National Music Museum could only have been done through collaboration with a dedicated team of a talented colleagues that over the years have included Herbert Heyde, Joe Johnson, John Koster, Deborah Check Reeves, Sabine Klaus, Arian Sheets, and Gary Stewart, to name just a few. And in the past-year-and-a-half, I have been privileged to assist the NMM’s new Director, Cleveland Johnson, who is working tirelessly to get the word out about one of the state’s and the nation’s “best kept secrets.”

Like many of those who have received the Curt Sachs Award before me, my hope is that I will be able to continue to contribute to the aims of the society—“to promote a better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods.” I have many projects, papers, articles, and books that await my attention. I still have some dreams left to pursue and many of my predecessor’s footsteps left to follow.

In conclusion, I want to thank you all once again for honoring the work that I have so far been able to accomplish in the field of organology and for the collegial affirmation, encouragement, friendship, and motivation to continue to pursue my dreams for many years to come.

- Margaret Downie Banks

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